When Armistead Maupin’s The Night Listener came out in 2000, many noted the similarities between its story and that of JT LeRoy’s. The Night Listener was a fictionalized account of the case of Anthony Godby Johnson. Johnson was supposedly a teenager with AIDS who had endured an incredibly abusive childhood until he was adopted, at 11, by a “social worker” named Vicki. In the early nineties, he contacted the writer Paul Monette, who was himself dying of AIDS and who connected Tony to editors. After reading Tony’s memoir, Maupin asked to be put in touch with Tony and began a long telephone friendship. But nobody had ever met Tony in person, and it was noted how similar his voice was to that of his adoptive mother, Vicki, the only person who would claim to have seen him. Like LeRoy, Tony built a network of writers and celebrities, created a Website, and touched the hearts of an adoring public.
Although his editors and agents defended him, eventually people began to suspect he was a fraud. After Maupin’s novel renewed interest in the case, the holes in Tony’s story were made devastatingly clear in Tad Friend’s 2001 New Yorker article “Virtual Love.” Friend comes short of proving Tony never existed and eventually declares him to be the equivalent of Schrödinger’s cat—“by eluding definitive observation, Tony remained perpetually real and perpetually imaginary,” writes Friend.
The implication of the article, however, is that Tony was actually a Union City, New Jersey, woman named Vicki Fraginals. “Tony was self-conscious about his voice,” writes Friend, “which was airy and lilting; it had never broken, Tony told friends, because AIDS had forestalled his puberty.” LeRoy’s “feminine” voice has also remained changeless, according to phone contacts, and he has said that his own puberty was delayed. I wondered if LeRoy might be the same woman who, once she could no longer maintain the fiction of Anthony Godby Johnson, created a new persona; I was interested in the ways that stories of suffering might be used to mask other, less marketable stories of suffering. Some minor investigation, however, revealed that the dates didn’t work out, and that LeRoy was clearly rooted in San Francisco—although the Johnson story might have served as inspiration, especially since a 1993 Newsweek article provided a detailed account of the hoax.
“JT was nervous about doing readings,” the man said. “So he asked me if I would impersonate him.”
It has occurred to me that there are months or years of my own life that were so unwitnessed that I could make up as many outrageous stories as I wanted, and nobody could refute them. In 1986, hitchhiking across the Florida panhandle, I was picked up by a man who had breasts. He told me a series of fabulous lies before pulling over, letting me out, and revealing that his breasts weren’t real, and so nothing he’d described—including a rape he’d survived—was true. He left me there feeling both disturbed and enlightened. This actually happened, but there’s no way I could prove it.
With JT LeRoy, in contrast, there are several facts that can be checked out. Dr. Owens is a real psychologist, the head of the Adolescent Psychiatric Inpatient Program at St. Mary’s McAuley Institute, which JT has raised money for. Dr. Owens, however, says that he cannot verify that he did or did not see such a patient. JT could empower Dr. Owens to go public with the information, but he hasn’t done that. JT’s mother and grandfather are said to have died. He won’t reveal the names or locations of his other West Virginia relatives, or of his biological father, said by JT to be a famous theological writer. An uncle, somewhere in the Midwest, spoke on the phone with one of JT’s publishing contacts, but he worked for the government in a secret capacity, he said, and was afraid any association with his nephew’s writings could endanger his career.
There is also a “cousin,” Jo Ann, who received JT’s checks for him, at least for his first book. But despite references in his books to hustlers and street kids he’d befriended, his acknowledgments are largely to celebrities; it’s as if he’d been born, out of thin air, somewhere around 1994.
The details in his fiction struck me as equally vague. I came away from reading Sarah knowing nothing about truck-stop prostitution in West Virginia or about West Virginia. This is less true of his book of stories, in which I could at least imagine that the author had been to Fairy Stone Park in Virginia and knew something about meth labs. The stories are full of clichéd white-trash characters and vague, nondenominational, child-whipping fundamentalists. And though I don’t know much about truck-stop prostitution, I’ve never come across a single detail in LeRoy’s work that evoked a world I do know: the world of Polk Street in the nineties—the setting of his most recent work, Harold’s End. JT’s work has always been marketed as thinly concealed memoir; that said, whether he is successful at making these experiences ring true doesn’t refute or prove anything about his life.